Many eyes were on Philly this week. Don’t look away, environmental activists say

Ed Brown (center in group photo), 17, stands with friends and Sunrise members at the Count Every Vote rally Thursday (Miles Bryan / WHYY)

Ed Brown (center in group photo), 17, stands with friends and Sunrise members at the Count Every Vote rally Thursday (Miles Bryan / WHYY)

Ed Brown is 17, which means he couldn’t vote last Tuesday. That didn’t stop him from organizing his friends, or canvassing to get out the vote, or marching for issues of environmental and racial justice.

It also won’t stop his work now that the election’s outcome is known.

“There are dichotomies where we have to decide not for who we want, but what we need to survive,” said the West Philly high schooler. “In the past, we’ve been let down by politicians who got elected and then hung back from their message. And so in this election and in elections past, we never make Election Day — we never put that as the be-all-end-all.”

Brown is the electoral team lead for the Sunrise Movement’s Philly hub and a swing state organizer for the national team. Sunrise, a political movement of mostly young people working for climate justice, campaigned for Democrat Joe Biden this year but stopped short of an official endorsement. Still, its leadership pushed the candidate’s campaign toward a more comprehensive and aggressive climate plan.

“We know that a lot of promises that politicians make on the campaign trail don’t come to fruition,” Brown said. “We’re going to make sure that we can get the climate legislation that our generation needs, and frankly every human on this earth needs, to make sure that we can have a livable future.”

Brown is one of the younger leaders working to stop the climate crisis. But he echoed what a multitude of other local environmental organizers emphasized: There’s a lot of work to be done.

Dyresha Harris, who works with the environmental justice organization Philly Thrive, has lived in West Philadelphia for more than a decade. The election was “crucial around climate change,” she said, but more critical still is the need to “get the people who are most impacted by these issues at the center of decision-making, and not just at the receiving end of the policies that other people create.”

Much attention was focused in the days following the election on Philadelphia’s ballot-counting. Her message to the rest of the nation: Don’t look away.

“All eyes have been on us because of being a swing state, but we’re much more than that,”  Harris said. “We’re a community of people who are engaged and ready to be an example … in terms of what folks here, frontline folks, are thinking about and putting forward in the world.”

Maya K. van Rossum, leader of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said the work for environmental safety will continue beyond this election.

“Our river very much hangs in the balance with this election, and so it will be important for people to exercise their rights to free speech and to peaceably assemble in defense of our environments,” she said. “For some, this may be in the context of the election, [but] for others it will continue in challenges to devastating projects and decisions like pipelines, LNG [liquefied natural gas] exports and more … whoever wins the presidency, it is clear that we will continue to have growing attacks on our environment.”

How to address those ‘attacks’?

Organizers differ in their priorities. Harris mentioned cleanup of the former Philadelphia Energy Solutions refinery complex and investment in carbon-neutral housing, while van Rossum emphasized the importance of green amendments and future Supreme Court decisions. Brown talked about abolishing the Electoral College, expanding voter registration, and pushing forward legislation in accordance with a Green New Deal.

Perhaps most importantly, the call for continued action post-election isn’t new. Philly Thrive member Sylvia Bennett was born and raised in Philadelphia; she’s lived in Grays Ferry for the past 50 years. Both of her daughters have gotten cancer, which she attributes to their growing up near the now-defunct PES refinery.

“We have to move on and try to work for the betterment of things,” Bennett saId. “We have no other choice.”

Bennett has been organizing since the beginning of the 1960s, meaning she’s seen presidential candidates come and go. “We got to work with them, no matter what,” she said.

And if that doesn’t go well? “We the people: We put you in, we take you out.”

The Environmental Voter Project, which works to change the behavior of those environmentalists who wouldn’t normally plan to vote, reports sending 54,976 Pennsylvanians to the polls for the very first time this general election.

Next year, Ed Brown will be able to vote. By then, he said, he’s hoping for a big shift in the Democratic agenda, “to be one where we ask for what we want.”

“Because we’re not going to get what we don’t ask for. When we go for incrementalism or we go bit by bit, let’s get this tiny piece of legislation or this bit, it’s not what we want,” he said. “We need democracy to be brought to the forefront, not just in Philly, but in the entire nation.”

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